Theater of Cruelty

Why there is something and not just nothing

VENICE / This year's Art Biennale in Venice feels like the end of a human-centered era, a time where man with his invulnerability, self-sufficiency, the white man as the center of the world is under attack. Now it is the woman's turn to ask the big questions, about the sanctity of life, about connectedness, about man and technology, about what comes after "man".


The only authority that can say today: "You must change your life", is the global crisis. A crisis marked by uncertainty and our belonging to the earth. If there is something in this time and in this crisis, which this time commands us to change our lives once and for all, it is because it brings the question of life's relationship to the living to the surface.

Because perhaps it has arrived, the momentum we have been waiting for for so long, which will break with the carefree logic of time. Perhaps it begins with Leibniz's question about why there is something and not nothing. Where we run up against a wall. The wall that earlier poets, thinkers and forgotten religions liked to refer to as the sanctity of life.

How does man change in a machine age?

But this almost gives a feeling of hope: that we can once again ask these questions, explore them – that is the task of art. What does life mean? What is our responsibility towards our planet, other animals and life forms? How does man change in a machine age? Will technology save us? Should the body and body language? Should art?

The woman's inner strength and calmness

The English painter and writer Leonora Carrington and her little adventure about the child's transformation in a fearful and monotonous world The Milk of Dreams), constitute Cecilia Alemani#'s visionary curation for the Biennale. Carrington's tribute to the woman, to the material and the transformations of the body, is repeated in many of the works.

The first thing that meets me in the rustic Arsenale exhibition building is American Simone Leigh's 5 meter high bronze sculpture of an African woman from West Africa – with braids, but without eyes. A powerful female totem, which incarnates in its body the architecture from Benin and Togo and the importance of fired clay for life. If a single gesture can say a lot, it has to be Leigh's second sculpture Last Garmant in the American pavilion, which depicts a black woman in a forward-bent position. She stands with her back straight and works in the wet field with water up to her ankles. Ground, body and gesture slide into one, like one large sculpture. The early black American history is here, the oppression, the vulnerability, the manual labor, the necessity and yet, the inner strength and calmness of the woman.

Diego Marcon, The Parents' Room, 2021.

The tactile, the craft, the recycled

The woman collects, the woman gives back. To us, to the earth. That's how we tell stories, write Ursula K. The Guin in his book Carrier bag theory for fiction (1986/2017), which is not surprisingly a central reference at the biennale. To write and tell is also to bring together the separate.

Here, nature is also history, colonization, exploitation and slavery.

Maria Bartuszova has created a number of abstract forms, which resemble eggs, nests, female parts of the body, where with a special technique, creates hollow fragments. The round shapes are like Brancui's eggs, now with holes, exposed hungry for life.

I see several knitted "paintings", Gabriel Chaile#s clay sculptures, Tau Lewis scrap fabric textiles of giant heads, imaginary talismans. Or textiles as a way of expressing the feminine, at Emma Talbot. Or the humanoid bodies of the Precious Okoyomons Earth Seed, assembled from living, ever-growing materials, wild flowers, snails and leaves. Here, nature is also history, colonization, exploitation and slavery. A simultaneously fragile and living organic work.

But writing can also become tactile, material, as with Claude Cahun, Djuna Barnes, Unica Zürn and others. Writing has not so much to do with a private activity, as an encounter with the material, another mode of production. On the whole, I sense a turn towards the tactile, the craft, the recycled, and I ask myself what is happening to art these years. As is well known, good art requires the craftsman's skill and material awareness, but the important thing is whether it makes me see and think differently about the world and things. This is what art is more? I also sense a need to return to concrete life, the present, the porous, to everyday life, to slow time. Not the endless pursuit of the new, the limitless infinity of change. German Raphaela Vogel#'s wonderful giant sculpture of the fully equipped male penis reminds me of this. When I get closer, I discover that this penis suffers from every imaginable disease, from testicular cancer to genital warts and erectile dysfunction. The male potency is impotent. Nevertheless, this giant chick is pulled by five infected giraffes who will probably die soon!

An eerie lifeless doppelganger

Three videos in particular made a big impression: Egle Bidvytyte#s Mutating bodies is collective body art that allows bodies and surroundings to interact with each other in a wild and surprising way. We follow a group of young people's spiritual journey through pine forest and sand dunes filmed in Lithuania. To give something back to the earth, to the plants and animals, what we have taken from them and destroyed. Human hubris. Told with mutating bodies, which also move like animals (crabs), a connection and degradation at the same time. All accompanied by spherical music and poetry. Body art meets speculative fiction.

Also in Chinese Zheng Bo#'s work The Rite of Spring, about four naked men's eroticization with trees and nature, desire finds new symbiotic openings with nature beyond the human. We feel the vibration of the earth through man.

The story of his murder of his family and subsequent suicide.

All its own is Diego Marcon#'s movie: The Parents' Room which can best be described with Freud's concept impropriety (creepy), that the recognizable shows its sinister side and perhaps truth: A man sits on the bed in a room, while a woman lies next to him. Everything is calm, familiar and strange. Then, in a chorus-based monologue with a fine, high tone, he begins to tell the story of his murder of his family and subsequent suicide. When the camera zooms in on his face covered with a strange white mask, it dawns on us that we are in a cool afterlife. They are all dead. Father, mother, daughter and son. One by one the others now enter and sing their message from the unholy valley of death. With the greatest delicacy and tenderness. The synthetic computer-generated film creates an eerie lifeless doppelganger in the human being that both screams and sings to us from the other side.

All three films give me the experience of being up against a wall, the human wall, and insisting on listening to a voice from the other side, who are we, and why is there something and not nothing. And could it all be different?

My body is a movie

The French-Algerian film director Zineb Sedira has created a total installation in the French pavilion: a model of her own home made as a film studio and next to a cinema where you can watch clips from her film. It is not only about telling the story of making films in exile, about the oppression of Algir and its population from the colonial era, but that the traces and language of film art live in our bodies, its archive, witness accounts, that life is like a fragile montage taken from a documentary film. By presenting the world in an unfamiliar way, we learn to see it differently, and under special circumstances this can possibly give us the feeling of life back, so that we can once again feel things or make things come alive within us.

Here, Jacques Rancière's approach to art and film seems particularly present at Sedira.

To create a break in our habits

Art reorganizes the relationship between signs, images and the way of living.

It is no longer possible to identify art with its medium.

It becomes obvious to ask if and how a sensuous way of being goes out and paves the way for a way of living. In that sense, our "post-media" situation has not only a structural significance, but also a value-based and existential one, because it is precisely about creating a break in our habits for ways of sensing. This, as far as I can see, is what opens up with this biennale: Brugen af technology becomes a way to shift the focus from the old existentialism about anxiety and meaning for man to meaning for the surroundings, for nature, for the destruction, for the innovations, for the earth. The biennale's small retrospective collection on the cyborg, on man and machine does not tell us much new, but merely reminds us that the exploration of man and experience today often takes place together with non-human components – technical devices, media, body prostheses etc. It is not longer possible to identify the art with its medium, e.g. the painting and the two-dimensional surface. This is the 21st century problem, like the many experiments of the visual arts. It is probably one of the reasons why there are already so few paintings, and that the few there are, from the South, from Cuba, from Sudan, also explore painting's own practice, e.g. the Sudanese poet and painter Ibrahim El-Salahi's calligraphy-inspired drawings there cement is also used, and Cuban Belkis Ayon's special printing technique. On the other hand, the religious and spiritual aspects of the painting are very present here.    

I therefore venture the claim that the continuous creation in art is more than a movement from nothing to nothing, but from something to something.


See also about Anselm Kiefer in Venice.

Alexander Carnera
Alexander Carnera
Carnera is a freelance writer living in Copenhagen.

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